If you want to visit Thailand in 2021, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Thailand began re-opening its borders to foreign visitors in the last few weeks of 2020, with a new online registration for visa-exemption on arrival launched in mid-December.
The bad news? No one knows exactly when the border will re-open in a broad way, or what form tourism in Thailand will take after months of idling, apart from a nascent long-stay visa program that, since its rollout, has evolved into a scam meant to smuggle Chinese investors into the Kingdom. The status of the industry seems to correlate only loosely with the fundamentals of Covid-19 in Thailand, which has remained mostly under control.
Regardless of when you’d like to travel to Thailand again, let alone when you expect to be able to do so, I hope you’ll continue reading for up-to-the-minute information and insights.
UPDATE: As of early 2021, Thailand is battling a relatively severe second wave of Covid-19. At the present time, the border remains open to travelers who are willing to quarantine; the Kingdom has also flirted with various forms of lockdown. If you are planning a trip to Thailand right now, I encourage you to monitor the situation closely.
The Truth About Coronavirus in Thailand
Before I explain the particulars of how you might visit Thailand in 2021, I have to give credit where credit is due: Thailand, assuming the numbers are at least somewhat accurate, has done a fantastic job containing Covid-19. Or at least it did, for most of 2020: With just over 4,000 cases and only around 60 deaths as of December 2020, the Kingdom has had one of the best coronavirus outcomes on the entire planet. (UPDATE: A second wave in early 2021 has, as of only a few days into the new year, seen daily case numbers spike as high as 1,000.)
Unfortunately, Thailand’s medical success with coronavirus had resulted in economic failure of congruent magnitude. The government, for reasons both understandable and ludicrous, has created a paradigm where “zero infections” is the only acceptable future. Until this tide turns (and there are some signs, to be fair, that it might be doing so), tourists will not return to Thailand in meaningful numbers.
FAQ About the Future of Tourism in Thailand
What are the travel restrictions in Thailand?
Thailand’s border shut completely in late March 2020. The good news, at least in theory, is that Thai Embassies around the world have begun accepting applications for single-entry tourist visas, albeit with a long list of conditions attached. Visa exemptions on arrival were suspended through early December, though they have now been reinstated, albeit with a catch: You now get 45 days instead of 30, which allows you to complete your compulsory 15-day quarantine without eating into your previously allotted allowance for visiting.
Are airlines still flying to Thailand?
At the same time Thailand closed its border to foreigners, it banned all scheduled flights, which essentially grounded its flag carrier Thai Airways. As of February 2021, airlines including Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways have resumed regularly scheduled service to Thailand, albeit with frequency dramatically reduced as compared to pre-Covid levels.
Is it dangerous to travel to Thailand right now?
Before Covid-19, the question “is Thailand safe?” was a loaded one with a complex range of answers. The good news is that coronavirus is only a minor danger for foreigners lucky enough to enter Thailand right now. The bad news? Thailand’s roads are still among the most dangerous in the world, to say nothing of other hazards.
Is there a travel ban to Thailand?
The bad news? The Thailand Special Tourist Visa (STV) proved an utter farce, designed mostly to allow Chinese investors into the country under the guise of being “tourists.” The good news? In late 2020, Thai Embassies began issuing single-entry tourist visas, albeit with the same strict requirements listed for the STV. I hope you will be more easily able to visit Thailand in 2021—if you wanted to come in 2020, it would’ve require suffering on your part.
Can I still travel to Thailand?
If you are willing to jump through the hoops of getting a Covid-era tourist visa, which include a pre-flight medical examination, a pre-flight Covid test and other minutia, you can theoretically enter Thailand now. Note that travelers will be required to submit to a 15-day quarantine, at their expense, with no exceptions. Mai sabaay!
The Status of Thailand’s Border Closure
At the time of publication, the Thailand travel ban has finally been relaxed, at least minimally. Foreigners are no longer banned from entering Thailand, although the process of getting in is quite arduous indeed. Tourists can now enter if they meet certain criteria, as has been the case English teachers and certain medical tourists since the summer. All travelers must jump through many bureaucratic hoops before departing their countries, then spend 15 days in hotel quarantine upon arrival in Thailand.
You can certainly visit Thailand in 2021 if you want, but it’s anyone’s guess as to what the restrictions will be. Given the latest good news about vaccines (as of February 2021, more than half a dozen non-Chinese vaccines have obtained approval in various countries around the world), it’s possible that vaccinated travelers maybe be able to enter Thailand in 2021 with no other hoops to jump through. Shockingly, even the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s famously stubborn governor seems to have subscribed to this link of thinking!
Where to Go in Thailand in 2021
You’ll almost certainly begin your 2021 Thailand trip in Bangkok, and I urge you not to make the Kingdom’s underrated capital a touch-and-go affair. Spend at least three days in Bangkok instead: One amid the ancient temples of Thonburi and Rattanakosin; another split between the luxurious shopping malls and lofty rooftop bars in Bangkok’s modern center around Lumphini Park; and a third occupied with an activity of your own choosing—maybe a day trip to a famous “floating market”?
Historically (well, except for very ancient history), Chiang Rai has always wallowed in the shadow of its more famous neighbor Chiang Mai—I doubt this will change if you visit Thailand in 2021. However, whether you stay exclusively in the laid-back old town, or make an excursion into the scenic Golden Triangle along the Mekong River where Thailand meets Myanmar and Laos, I think you’ll find Chiang Mai’s charms even more enchanting with the lighter crowds 2021 all but guarantees.
Krabi, on the other hand, has been a top Thailand destination for as long as I remember; I imagine it will be one of the first to bounce back, once this nightmare is over. This is not to say you’ll have to feel trapped amid all the tourists. From Railay Beach (sort of) on the mainland to iconic Koh Phi Phi and its billion-Baht scenery, Krabi is a place you absolutely have to see when you visit Thailand next, whether or not you’ve been there before, and even if you’re one among thousands of revelers.
Red Lotus Sea
Contrary to what its name might suggest, the Red Lotus Sea isn’t an ocean—it’s among the farthest places in Thailand from the sea. In spite of this, it’s a great idea to go there if you visit Thailand in 2021, at least if you trip is in January or February. Otherwise, save Talay Bua Daeng (as this massive lake, located near the city of Udon Thani in the underrated Isaan region) for your 2022 Thailand trip. It’s only during the first couple months of a given year that the millions of pink lotus blossoms atop its shimmery waters synchronize in full bloom.
When it comes to “lost” cities in Southeast Asia, Sukhothai isn’t nearly as ubiquitous of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat or Myanmar’s Bagan, or even Ayutthaya, a more popular Thai option near Bangkok. This is precisely why I recommend you make the trek to Sukhothai, which was actually Thailand’s original capital. Whether biking between sets of ruins, each more spectacular than the last, or fueling up with tasty Sukhothai noodles, this journey off Thailand’s beaten path is more than worth the effort.
Learn About the Latest Thailand Travel Restrictions
I will be updating this article as developments occur with regard to the Thailand entry ban. For example, back when I assumed that the Thailand Special Tourist Visa (STV) plan would go into effect on October 1, 2020—and that it wouldn’t be a total scam—I created an article dedicated to it. Moreover, I will post factual updates on Thailand Starts Here’s Facebook page, and commentary on my personal Twitter account.
One strategy I’ve advised against, regardless of when you want or expect to visit Thailand again, is taking too much stock of English-language Thailand news. While articles on sites like The Bangkok Post and The Nation tend to have at least some basis in fact, these publications are generally prone to heap undue praise on the Thai government, and are known to employ mercurial “journalists” for whom facts are often optional.
The Bottom Line
You will definitely be able to visit Thailand in 2021, but no one can say under precisely what circumstances this will be possible. Until a vaccine is widely available around the globe, however, it’s unlikely that tourism in Thailand will bounce back to how it was before the pandemic, at least not initially. The great news is that economic reality always wins out in the end, especially in a country whose economy depends so disproportionately on tourism. For now, let’s all stay informed and inspired, and in awareness of the fact that this, too, shall pass.